I must have misread the map, because the road to Pilton turned out to be a rutted bridleway. No chance of riding the road bike down there, I thought, so I continued along the narrow country lane, knowing that sooner or later I’d reach the River Nene anyway.
The plan was extremely simple: cycle to a river, float down it, ride home. It would be the first time I’d paddled a watercraft since a school trip when I was 10, so it wouldn’t be anything earth-shaking, and I still hadn’t shaken off the nasty infection that had taken me out a few weeks previously. But it would be a proof of concept, at least — first-hand evidence of the feasibility of a bike-rafting trip.
I arrived in the cute market-town of Oundle and headed south. Before long I noticed a lock and set off down a track towards it. A handful of stern-looking Sunday boaters chugged past and ignored me from behind their sunglasses. Yawn.
The portage point was the ideal put-in spot — a few inches above the water below the lower gate of the lock. Hoping that nobody would ask to see an Environment Agency permit or British Canoeists’ Union license, I inflated the raft I’d packed into a single pannier, slotted the paddle together, strapped the wheels and frame to the front of the little dinghy — and bobbed magically out into midstream. Amazing! Ha-haaa! Seamless transfer from roadway to waterway, without a trace!
My packraft felt more stable with a bit of weight on the bow to counterbalance it. Paddling the thing was so easy. I was impressed. I drifted along with the current until the river widened and I slowed almost to a halt. I was travelling through wheat-fields and cow pastures now. A narrow-boat sidled past in the other direction, the steersman grinning curiously at me as I waited for him to pass.
It was no kayak, I discovered. The boat skidded across the water’s surface rather than cutting through it. Without constant adjustment I quickly found myself pirouetting downriver. Big deal — that’s what the paddle was for. I could hardly complain — the entire package of boat, seat, straps, inflation bag, paddle and carry sack all weighed in at three-and-a-half kilos, or the same as a couple of big water bottles.
The Nene was placid and — let’s be honest — fairly boring. After an hour and a half of steady flat-water paddling between reeds and trees and past motionless anglers I reached the next lock down. The river might as well have been a canal. Still, I could think of worse ways to spend a Sunday.
I fetched up by the portage point and disembarked, having completed my first packrafting experience without capsizing or, more likely, falling overboard whilst trying to get out of the boat. Yay!
Now to find a river more interesting than the Nene…